Melody to Malady

Scientists’ recent analysis of Tutankhamen’s blood and DNA is likely to cast a pall on Egyptian tour-guides at the Valley of the Kings in Luxor. For decades they have conjured up conspiracy theories involving accident, betrayal and deceit that led to the boy-king’s untimely death at the tender age of nineteen. Unfortunately, the results released this month suggest a more mundane cause—the onset of malaria on the Pharaoh’s already weak constitution.

Although this may be the first recorded instance of malaria, it is by no means the last. Today malaria accounts for between one and three million fatalities every year, a majority of which occur in sub-Saharan Africa. Health and aid agencies (including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, started by the Washington wonder who may well be remembered by posterity for his philanthropy) have waged an incessant, but losing, battle against the humble mosquito that carries this disease.

Man’s sleeping hours are the most vulnerable for mosquito bites, and the simplest form of protection is the regular use of mosquito nets. My earliest memory of this “room within a room” is that of sheer bewilderment as one had to quickly slide into the safety of this white shroud— however, its practicality became almost immediately evident as the near-invisible gossamer layer allowed sleep to overpower the orchestral refrain of blood-thirsty mosquitoes who could be heard but not felt. Although mosquito nets are freely distributed to combat the disease in areas where it is most prevalent, poverty has often led the nylon nets to be used for other purposes like catching fish.

The word ‘malaria’ is derived from the Italian phrase for “bad air” as it was initially thought to be caused by breathing in the humid and polluted air of marshy tropical regions. The fact that malaria is transmitted by the female Anopheles mosquito was discovered by Sir Ronald Ross in Calcutta in 1898, and he was awarded the Nobel Prize for his efforts in 1902. This was however not the last time that malaria featured in the citation for the Nobel Prize for Medicine—the 1927 award celebrated the discovery that artificially induced malaria could cure syphilis in its advanced stages!

Amitav Ghosh’s early novel The Calcutta Chromosome is a gripping amalgam of historical facts and futuristic fiction that follows young Ronald Ross, a directionless officer of the Indian Medical Service with ambitions of becoming a writer, as he stumbles his way to the relationship between mosquitoes and malaria. The 20th of August is today celebrated as World Mosquito Day in honour of Ross’s dissection in 1897 of a mosquito that revealed malaria parasites growing inside the insect’s tissues.

Ross continued his experiments in a small laboratory created for him within the ramparts of Calcutta’s Presidency General Hospital. Although he left in 1899, having accepted an offer from the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, his one-storeyed cottage continues to be used as an outpatient centre for inoculating local residents against malaria and dengue fever. A few feet away, a brass plaque commemorates Ross’s epic discovery with immortal lines from the part-time poet’s pen: “I know this little thing, A myriad men will save. O death where is thy sting? Thy victory O grave?”


Away with a pæan of derision,
You winged blood-drop.

Can I not overtake you ?
Are you one too many for me,
Winged Victory ?
Am I not mosquito enough to out-mosquito you?

D H Lawrence, The Mosquito

Calcutta Kaleidoscope

The recent death of Patrick Swayze resulted in a predictable retrospective of his films on television, including the less well-known “City of Joy”. A monicker bestowed upon Calcutta by Dominique Lapierre to celebrate the optimism of the city, the label was reduced to a mockery in the movie, as Calcutta is portrayed as a cesspool of poverty, corruption and disease.

So engrained is this clichéd view in the minds of travellers that a majority of visitors from abroad are content to make a quick pilgrimage to the Missionaries of Charity en route to a connecting flight to more exotic destinations. When my friend recently invited some of her American colleagues to visit Calcutta, she was shocked not to find a detailed travel guide on the Internet to plan their holiday.

With the above objective in mind, this uncharacteristically long essay will endeavour to introduce the salient sights of this history-steeped city, once known as the second city of the British Empire, to the interested visitor with a day to spare.

The tour begins at Park Street, a major thoroughfare familiar to food and music aficionados. At its intersection with Lower Circular Road, formerly the site of the Maratha Ditch, stands the European Burial Ground (now called the South Park Street Cemetery) marking the very edge of the old White Town. A walk through the well-maintained grounds sheltered by mango trees is like a journey through time, as elaborate mausoleums and monuments dating back to the early eighteenth century bear silent testimony to centuries of change outside. Of particular interest are the tombs of Sir William Jones (scholar extraordinaire and founder of the Asiatic Society), Henry Derozio (firebrand teacher and founder of the Young Bengal movement), Robert Kyd (distinguished botanist and founder of the Botanical Gardens across the Hooghly river), Charles Stuart (whose sepulchre is a curious amalgamation of Christian and Hindu styles), and the young Rose Aylmer (whose untimely death from an excess of pineapples inspired his lover-poet, Walter Savage Landor, to pen his most famous lines).

A westward drive down Park Street will allow fleeting glimpses of the Archbishop’s House, St Xavier’s School, the majestic Queen’s Mansion, The Bengal Club (one-time residence of Lord Macaulay) and The Asiatic Society, until the Chowringhee intersection brings to sight the vast and sprawling Maidan (referred to as Calcutta’s lungs).  Driving past it into Cathedral Road juxtaposes budding photographers in an enviable position between the Victoria Memorial on the right and the St Paul’s Cathedral on the left. Completed in 1921, the Victoria Memorial is a virtual obituary to the British Empire with a veritable treasure-house of Victorian memorabilia inside the museum, and a graveyard of viceregal statues in the garden outside.

Turning right beyond the Academy of Fine Arts and Rabindra Sadan places one beside the Presidency General Hospital where Roland Ross conducted his malaria research that landed him the 1902 Nobel Prize for Medicine. An alcove in the wall on the left commemorates his contribution, a stone’s throw away from his research laboratory. Passing by the Royal Calcutta Turf Club, one can take a quick glance at the National Library through Belvedere Road on the left, the former residence of Warren Hastings. Turning right before the ramp to Vidyasagar Setu (the ultra-modern Second Hooghly Bridge), one reaches Strand Road and the beautiful Prinsep Memorial. Dedicated to the assay-master and Indologist who decoded the Brahmi script, the Parthenon-like structure overlooks the circular rail and Prinsep Ghat that offers splendid views of both bridges on a clear day.

Continuing north on Strand Road along the expansive grounds of the new Fort William on the right, one passes the Gwalior Memorial (mockingly called the Pepperpot) on the left. In the distant east across the Maidan is visible the city’s colonial skyline that earned her the sobriquet City of Palaces. In the middle, proudly stands the Ochterlony Monument, a minaret that borrows elements from Egyptian, Syrian and Turkish architecture. A right turn on Auckland Road takes one around the Eden Gardens stadium, the Mecca of Indian cricket, towards the grounds of the Governor House and the beginning of the commercial centre of the city. Esplanade Row West separates the State Legislative House from the Town Hall, the latter being the venue of several public coronations (including Tagore’s Nobel Prize felicitation) and site of Jagadish Bose’s pathbreaking demonstration of wireless microwave communications. Further ahead is the grand Gothic architecture of the Calcutta High Court.

A quick walk through Old Post Office Street brings one to St John’s Church, standing on the former site of Calcutta’s oldest cemetery. While visitors marvel at the ancient pipe organ, stained glass windows and Johann Zoffani’s “The Last Supper”, the real draw is the graveyard that houses the mausoleum of Job Charnock, the East India Company trader credited with founding the city of Calcutta in 1690 from the three villages of Sutanuti, Kolikata and Gobindapur. Also tucked away in a corner is Lord Curzon’s replica of Holwell’s Memorial to the Black Hole victims.

Continuing north on Council House Street allows the General Post Office to be visible on the left, the site of the original Fort William, while north of the Red Tank stands the daunting red-bricked Writers’ Building, the heart of the West Bengal Government’s administrative branch. Turning right on Dalhousie North offers a closer view of this Corinthian façade that hides the Kafkaesque bureaucracy within, as well as the rebuilt St Andrew’s Church that was damaged in the Calcutta siege of 1756. As Dalhousie morphs into Bowbazar Street, the buildings appear to loom a little taller as the streets become narrower, marking the entrance to the original Black Town of Calcutta.

A left turn on College Street brings one to the academic hub of the city, with the renowned institutions of Calcutta Medical College, the University of Calcutta and Presidency College standing almost shoulder to shoulder. An obligatory stop at the famous Coffee House at Albert Hall chronicles the midpoint of the day tour. Despite attempts to renew its ambience, the Coffee House (which has played host to Bengali intellectuals ranging from Satyajit Ray to Amartya Sen) still retains the laissez-faire spirit of its past, with white-turbaned waiters serving non-descript food through a maze of cigarette smoke and chairs to groups of students and artists locked in ardent and animated adda. After a walk through the rows of book stalls hiding nuggets of old and rare documents, one would make their way to Central Avenue to the singular site of the Marble Palace, home of Raja Rajendra Mullick’s family.

Geoffrey Moorhouse’s description of the collection inside as “vast quantities of Victorian bric-a-brac that look as if they were scavenged in job lots from the Portobello Road on a series of damp Saturday afternoons in October” does grave injustice to the mystifying collection of gold clocks, Reubens masterpieces and floor-to-ceiling Belgian mirrors, but does offer a glimpse of Bengali babu culture during the height of the British Raj.

Emerging from the shadows of the claustrophobic collection into the open grounds housing a private zoo, the visitor can head westward towards Chitpore Road, Calcutta’s oldest and longest road, that was once the sole connector of Sutanuti with the Kali temple south of Gobindapur. Today Chitpore Road is one of the busiest arteries in the city, and probably just as narrow—each passing tram along the cobblestoned street throws the chaotic traffic into complete disarray. In the distance, the peaks of the Howrah Bridge  (the world’s longest cantilever) play hide-and-seek between the elegant roofs of nineteenth century manors that have seen better days. A few yards to the north is the entrance to Jorasanko Thakurbari, the family residence of Rabindranath Tagore. Maintained by the Rabindra Bharati University, the house evokes the time and traditions of the doyen of Bengal’s renaissance, with many of the rooms preserved the way it was during the poet’s lifetime. Parts of the mansion have been converted into an art museum, while family portraits and rare photographs adorn the walls of other halls.

Time and interest permitting, a quick walk through the houses of the landed gentry of yore in the Pathuriaghata area is a memorable experience, both as an indicator of the accumulated wealth of the past and as a pointer to its transience. Jadulal Mullick’s house on the corner of Pathuriaghata Street (where the mystic and philosopher Ramakrishna Paramhamsa once entered into a spiritual trance) stands as a stark reminder of the ravages of time and fate—the dilapidated garage filled with odds-and-ends once used to house twelve Rolls Royces, although the owner’s preferred mode of transport was a carriage drawn by a pair of zebras from his stable! The narrow lane yields one treasure after another, as huge mansions owned by the Mullicks and the Tagores and the Ghoshes with open courtyards and Ionic columns show up in the unlikeliest corners. But nothing prepares one for the sad sight of the remains of the Tagore Castle, an idiosyncratic tower with turrets inspired by the Windsor Castle—the once elegant building has been so altered and overbuilt in the last fifty years that the beautifully structured balustrades and clock-tower now stand out as oddities.

Venturing further north along Chitpore Road brings one to the famous potters’ colony of Kumartuli. A walk through the narrow lanes and marketplace reveals talented artisans working on rows of life-sized clay deities and busts of the cultural heroes of the day. Built on a foundation of straw and painted carefully by the aged hands of experience, these creations find pride of place in the Durga Puja every autumn when they are worshipped for four days before being immersed in the river in the metaphorical tradition of dust-to-dust.

A return to the heart of the city via Strand Bank Road passes the Nimtala Ghat crematorium, the imposing Old Silver Mint and the famed flower market at Armenian Ghat. The journey ends at the Millennium Park which offers a memorable view of the setting sun over the Hooghly, as the much-maligned city with a million disparate moving parts heals itself for another unpredictable day that would once again confound doomsayers and seem to violate all known laws of nature.


Thus the midday halt of Charnock—more's the pity!
Grew a City.
As the fungus sprouts chaotic from its bed,
So it spread.
Chance-directed, chance-erected, laid and built,
On the silt.
Palace, byre, hovel—poverty and pride—
Side by side.

Rudyard Kipling, Tale of Two Cities

Fall of the Mighty

Ford Motors’ Pinto lives on in automobile infamy not just because it was prone to fiery explosions upon rear-end collisions, but because a 1968 internal memorandum directed the company to live with the design defect as it would cost $121 million to modify the fuel tank, but only an estimated $49 million to compensate future victims.

The evolution of cars from the earliest horseless carriages to a modern vehicle with over 20,000 physical parts is one of wonder and respect. However, the industry has had its inevitable share of bad apples, with designs that have been arrogant, unstable or fragile. The latest to join the Hall of Shame is Toyota Motors who have been forced to recall 9 million vehicles worldwide in less than a year because of flaws with their accelerator pedal and braking system.

Although the gradual decline of General Motors in the last decade paved the path for Toyota to rise to the coveted position of the world’s largest auto-maker, its reign at the summit is likely to be short-lived. With the company having to suspend the sale of eight of its models, the impact is already being felt in the plummeting resale value of Toyota and Lexus models, while rival car companies are attempting to mask their schadenfreude by offering incentives to lure Toyota owners into their showrooms. More importantly, the damage to its brand (built on the twin ideals of quality and reliability) is likely to take longer to recover. A problematic car-part is forgivable in itself, but a company’s denial and obfuscation from a position of hubris is more difficult to forget.

The current unravelling of Toyota’s alleged cover-up is in sharp contrast to the contrition it displayed when defects surfaced with its Lexus 400 launch in 1989. Granted that there are instances when a problem lies with the operator of the vehicle (as in the manufactured scandal with the Audi 5000 in the 1980s), a company’s first line of defence should never be to blame the driver. Toyota’s incompetence in handling the recalls is a case study for what not to do in the face of crisis. It also invalidates Toyota’s kaizen (“continuous improvement”) philosophy, which empowers any worker to halt the assembly line if a flaw is detected, in a culture where loyalty, conformity and discipline are considered synonymous.

While Toyota will have its hands full in the coming months repairing vehicles and restoring its reputation, it will hopefully be a wake-up call for complacent companies who sacrifice innovation and imagination upon hitting a winning formula, and remind them not to take customers for granted.


Five stages of decline:
1. Hubris born of success,
2. Undisciplined pursuit of more,
3. Denial of risk and peril,
4. Grasping for salvation,
5. Capitulation to irrelevance or death.

Jim Collins, How the Mighty Fall